Maximize Your Miles

Take full advantage of rewards programs for better hotels and first-class flights

As the economy slows, travelers are looking to tighten more than just their seat belts. With the price of oil at record levels, we should all brace for the possibility of ever higher prices at the gas pump and the airport as airlines pass along their increased fuel costs. Already both United Airlines and U.S. Airways have announced that they will start charging $25 to check a second piece of luggage.

So what can you do? Many of us are already members of an assortment of frequent-flier programs, but we fail to take full advantage of them. To maximize your potential rewards, keep the following in mind:

Travel on one airline. If you purchase the lowest cost airfare you can find-without regard to the airline-you should consider whether paying, say, $50 more would pay off in the long run because of the miles you’d earn. A scattershot method of accumulating miles is unlikely to pay off.

Don’t hesitate to sign up. Sometimes circumstances will prevent you from flying a preferred airline. There’s a rule of thumb that if you’re flying an airline, you should participate in that airline’s miles program. You never know if you might book another flight with that airline, and there’s no cost to join.

Keep detailed records. If you’re in several programs, make sure you keep a record of all your membership numbers and dates of travel-most programs enable you to do this online. If an assistant helps you book your travel arrangements, make sure this person has the information-and is using it. Keep in mind that miles can expire after as little as 18 months if there’s no activity on an account.

Stay on top of your options. If you’re not a true road warrior who racks up thousands of miles each year, it’s even more important to know your options. You might not have 50,000 miles to earn a free ticket, but perhaps an upgrade to first class is within reach. Make sure you know the required totals for your program. For news and other info, visit www.frequentflier.com and www.insideflyer.com.

Book reservations with partnering companies. You can also multiply your miles on each trip by using only your airline program’s car rental or hotel partners. Better still, opt for a hotel partner that awards both. Hilton Hotels, for example, lets you earn both hotel points and airline miles.

Become a frequent guest. Most of the major hotel chains have frequent-guest programs whereby their most loyal guests get special accommodations, discounts, and upgrades. The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel by Joel L. Widzer (Travelers Tales Guides; $12.95) offers advice on how to stay at the world’s finest hotels for a fraction of the cost.

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